Listening and Text Criticism

Alright, so I've just handled the Alands and Metzger on text-critical criteria for judging among texts. But I've been doing my own work, of course, and a lot of it on internal criteria. Two posts have resulted directly, on the impact of orality and performance critical concerns on understanding grammar and syntax. And in the first of those, I basically asked the question, "what are the rules here?" So, what have I been doing?

First off, I have a feeling that I routinely at least "shade the line" on the Alands' fourth rule, leaning heavily on internal criteria to make the decision between variants. Of course, I have also noticed that the existing scholarship on contentious variants also routinely leans heavily on internal criteria to make the decision between variants. It bothers us to keep attested texts that don't make sense. We begin to argue about why they don't make sense, or develop complicated theories about why they do make sense. These theories can become deeply theologically involved! Witness the discussion of χωρις θεου and χαριτι θεου in Hebrews 2:9, and why it might make sense that Christ accomplishes his work "apart from God," versus "by the grace of God," and the dredging up of material on the "dereliction" on the cross which is is irrelevant to the passage without the variant.

This is one reason why the Alands give this rule in the first place, especially because we go to such lengths to make a text make sense. Scribes and editors always have. And when we're producing an edition, that's exactly what we're doing. We are acting as scribes, and creative ones, copying out the best text we can the way it makes sense to us. The idea in current text-critical judgments is that external criteria are more reliable indexes of authenticity, in terms of relying on broad multi-family and multi-regional agreements and in terms of the ability to date a text genealogically. And at that level, there's a certain willingness to let the earliest text be whatever it is, and leave the sense to the interpreter.

And I have to say that, as an editor, one of my greatest strengths and also my greatest flaws is that I am a credulous reader. If you're trying to say something, you have to work pretty hard to lose me. I do very well, therefore, as an interpreter. I assume that things make sense, and proceed to work on how. I may make a different sense of what's there than the author intended, but I'm corrigible, and I never discard the original. But that exact assumption, that the thing makes sense, ought to be giving me fits with this. And it is most of why I wind up shading the line, letting internal criteria make decisions. Because the editors are not the only ones who make sense—we assume that the author's original made sense, or it wouldn't have this preservation history that we see.

For me, external criteria get me about halfway in the consideration of a set of variants. Maybe it's a slam-dunk from the external criteria, and the variants are otherwise obviously problematic. (Internal criteria again.) But maybe there are variants attested by different families, or even differently across the same families. Maybe I reach a point where the decision simply can't be a slam-dunk case unless you really already have a bias for one textual family. I don't think the families make a solid case the way it's clear the development of the Nestle-Aland text and its modern predecessors seem to think.

Part of the problem with saying something like that is just how deeply divided the popular world of text criticism is between the Alexandrian and Byzantine-Imperial text-families. The major scholarship acknowledges a much higher degree of granularity through a much more detailed grasp of the transmission history in its major elements from about the fourth century, but we run into the simple fact that the oldest things we have witness an Alexandrian text, and the popularity of the Byzantine-Imperial text in its long derivation from the Koine type is best understood politically and not for any reasons of critical scholarship—and it's overwhelmingly late in its final form, and edited into older manuscripts by equally-late hands. And while we have "Western" and "Caesarean" text-types between, the quest for an original text runs inescapably to the oldest text, as though older meant closer to origin in genealogy as well as time. We can't deal with the aporia, the idea that the originals stand in some undefinable relationship to even the genealogically oldest of the texts we have.

Now, get me, I'm not making a play for the Byzantine majority by any means. There's no good basis for such an idea. But I am stuck making a play against the preference for the Alexandrian witnesses (like P46, B and 33, to cover all three kinds of manuscript). I think so much of it is due to the fact that Alexandrian readings so often align with the internal "shortest reading" criterion. But surely moderns aren't the first ones that occurred to, let alone the first ones to engage in textual comparison and critical scholarship. And we assign that kind of origin, whatever the factors in play, to the other types—but not the Alexandrian. We call them conservative, and conservators of an original form. And we do that on the basis of Alexandrian Christian theological tendencies in the controversies. But for there to be a type, and especially if the idea of Alexandria holds water as an origin, there's no reason to expect that there was not critical scriptorial work being done on New Testament collections there, just as there was on other traditions, the Septuagint included.

And remember that these are not Christian texts at all, especially in the first century, but Jewish texts! Alexandria is quite a plausible center for text work especially when we step away from the institutional church as a primary agent. And if we have collections by the third century, and if they are at all uniform in nature, they came from somewhere. But we have no textual record of the formation of circulating collections. No originals that are demonstrably distinct manuscripts uncollected. Our Christian sources basically take the circulating Pauline collection for granted, though we have reporting on the separate existence of the gospels (even if much of it is more story than history, working backward from the collection, and tells us almost nothing of what we now consider authoritative on their composition). We do not have Pauline autographs, let alone an early distinction between Paul, Ephesians/Colossians, and the Pastor.

Let us say from this: the authors are unknown in Alexandria. Only the manuscript tradition makes a stop there, and scriptorial work began in Alexandria long before these texts, and continued operating there well into the Christian period. Flourishing diaspora Judean scholarship was there, before and including Philo, well out of the political hair of Rome and well before Byzantium had a city named "Constantinopolis" in it. Surely the Alexandrian text-type attests something very old, but it is equally surely not old enough. How should there not be scribal editing behind it? How should the conformity of the Alexandrian type across time not testify to a particular bias, rather than neutrality—even if it is a marked bias toward omission?

So you can see how I have difficulty letting external criteria make the case entirely, when those criteria can't be demonstrated to fully achieve their goal of pointing to originals. I'm left with a lot higher observed granularity, and a lot more room that can only be filled by internal criteria—by determining some version of "authorial voice" and pursuing it doggedly, and just as often determining the editorial voices and handling them appropriately. If it is scribal transmission of collections as far back as we have evidence, the originals can't be guaranteed to survive in any one text, family, or combination. It changes the game on the Alands. Not all the way, but it complicates even their far more complicated transmission histories.

And the thing is, the SBL Greek NT is going that direction in bits of its text-critical ideology, opening up toward a transmission history in which even Alexandrian priority is reduced back to one more voice—except that it insists on comparing critical editions, not manuscripts. It does not legitimately do the hard work that has to be done. That's what I've been trying to do lately. And I've been doing it by that extra bit of relativizing of the Alexandrian witnesses, the corresponding amplification of the early Koine, the Western where unique and not derivative or blatantly editorial, other small familial groupings like what is coming to be called "family 1739," ... amplifying the plurivocity of the manuscript traditions and basically trying to nail the Alexandrian-Byzantine pendulum to the floor rather than either wall.

The oral and performance critical skills I have from my "higher" critical training have become my basis for what I call "listening" to the text, listening for authorial voice, listening for editorial changes, listening trained by the text itself, the language itself, the breadth of related sources, and the bits of the manuscript traditions I can lay hands on. It's awfully subjective. I'll admit again that I haven't got the objective criteria I'd like for it, except by following patterns—patterns that have to be intuited, and require a grasp of Greek style in various periods and places and backgrounds that will continue to be larger than my own for some time. But I have to assume that the text, the original we're looking for, made sense before the editorial hands got to it. That there is a sense in each author there to be intuited, and that grammar and syntax and rhetorical features and all the other general things that make for options in one's own personal characteristic style can be used correctly to reach for that.

I have to keep trying, by this "listening," to fill the gap the exterior criteria leave between the manuscript traditions and the originals with interior criteria. I will never be the text-critical scholar that the true experts in the field are, and I won't claim to be. I'm a theologian by trade, and an exegete by necessity. And when and as the field improves, I will learn right alongside. But in the meantime, if only for myself, I'm stuck negotiating something better for what I know, added to what the field of text-critical scholarship also knows. May God (and good friends) keep me from too many idiosyncrasies in the process!


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